There’s a certain cultural niche of the pop diva who is stereotypically popular among gay men. There’s a lot of variation in style — Madonna definitely fits, as do Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, and even Judy Garland in an earlier era. And Cher has embraced this niche over the last two decades of an amazing career. In Burlesque, she passes the torch — along with the torch song — to Christina Aguilera.
The idea of the burlesque show conjures up visions of lascivious and scandalous dancers in a smoky speakeasy. It’s the sort of thing that used to get banned in Boston, and which you did not discuss in polite company. But Burlesque has been filtered through Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, and aimed squarely at those who would know who Bob Fosse was. The girls have curves, sure, but they’re more like architectural details than anything truly sexual. This show is strictly PG-13, and it never really feels like it’s straining that line.
And is isn’t really a bad thing. Actual girlie shows translate badly to the screen, as evidenced by Showgirls. So throw out what a real burlesque act might include, and you get a giant, fun music video. Fantastic, artistic visuals and deft choreography are the order of the the day.
As for the plot, it just needs to be enough of a skeleton to get us safely from one musical number to the next without collapsing under its own weight. So we start with Ali (Aguilera) leaving absolutely nobody behind in the middle of Iowa to seek he fortune in Los Angeles. She almost literally stumbles into the Burlesque Lounge down on Sunset Boulevard, and immediately falls in love with the place.
The music hall is run by Tess (Cher), an experienced performer-turned-impresaria. The backstage is managed by her dear friend Sean (Stanley Tucci), Jack (Cam Gigandet) heads up the beefcake behind the bar, Alexis (an incredibly underused Alan Cumming) mans the door, and Nikki (Kristen Bell) is the reigning queen of the dancers.
But all is not well, as the club is hemorrhaging money and a balloon payment on the second mortgage looms. Tess’ partner and ex-husband Vince (Pete Gallagher) is panicked, and is trying to push her into taking an offer from real-estate developer Marcus (Eric Dane), who also has his eye on the new talent.
The focus may be on the musical numbers, but there’s really nothing else here worth seeing. As I said, the plot just needs to carry from one number to the next, and Diablo Cody is absolutely up to this job. But when there are more homages to Cabaret on the screen than there are garter belts in the costume department, it’s hard not to notice how toothless and pale the story is. There is absolutely no surprise, no edge, and no real danger. Not one but two threats absolutely fail to materialize. Aguilera and Cher have some sweetness to their interactions, but they’re a long, long way from Cher and Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck.
Still, the musical numbers are the real point. Aguilera has done here time in the pop-culture wilderness, and she’s more than ready to be taken seriously as an adult performer, and as an actress, for that matter. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for other teen pop idols of her generation. If you casually dismissed her along with them back in the ’90s, it’s worth taking another look. And Cher, for her part, capably proves that she’s still got it while having the grace to step aside.
Worth it: if you know who Bob Fosse is.
Bechdel Test: pass.